Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Cheese Stands Alone: Green Arrow #20

The Cheese Stands Alone is a semi-regular column featuring examinations of single issues that can be understood and appreciated on their own, without reading any of the preceding or following issues of the series.
In Mike Grell's amazing 80-issue run on Green Arrow, he sort of took the "super" out of superhero. Nobody ever refers to Oliver Queen as "Green Arrow," he loses his mask early on, and he pretty much never interacts with any of the other super folks operating in the (presumably shared) DC Universe. He lives with Black Canary, of course, though she goes by Dinah Lance and is more often a florist than a hero under Grell's pen, but otherwise the cast of the book is fairly "normal." Even Queen's foes, while often highly-skilled, tend to be unpowered. However, in Green Arrow #20, we see a familiar face from the DCU for the first and, I believe, last time: Hal Jordan, the most prominent Green Lantern. Of course, this is still Grell's book, so even Green Lantern remains just Hal, never donning his ring or mask. He's not there to aid Oliver in battle against some gigantic threat; he wants only to help one of his oldest friends bounce back from a dark and tragic time. It is a simple, direct, and effective issue that completely stands alone.
     Now, if you want to get technical about it, Green Arrow #20 is the second part of a two-parter titled "The Trial of Oliver Queen." But some of the strength of that story lies in the fact that both of its chapters more or less work on their own, each one putting the hero through a different sort of trial. In the preceding issue (#19), Oliver shoots---with an arrow, don't worry---and severely wounds a child who he believed at the time was about to gun down a police officer. It is discovered too late that the kid had only a paintbull gun, and so our hero is taken to court, where the judge comes down hard on him for his vigilante activities. Oliver then comes down on himself even harder, nearly drowning in alcohol and guilt. It's a great opening chapter, and well worth reading, but here's the thing: it pretty much gets summed up for you in the first six pages of Green Arrow #20 anyway. Through some tightly-scripted police dialogue and a visually dynamic dream sequence, Grell and penciller Ed Hannigan bring up to speed anyone who might be coming into this issue cold, and they do it in a way that still moves all the essential characters forward in their own stories. This kind of seamless, natural recap is a rarity in comics, and a tactic that could and should be used more often, and it is a major part of why I selected Green Arrow #20 for this column. Though it's hardly the only reason.
     The best part of the issue is the scene between Oliver and Hal. At a campsite on Mt. Rainier, Hal forces his old friend to stop bingeing on booze and self-pity and start living again, which Oliver gets pretty pissed about at first. As their conversation becomes an argument and then a fistfight and then, finally, a moment of clarity followed by a hug, the reader learns just how much these two men mean to each other. It's clear even if you knew nothing about either of them beforehand, and even though the exact details of their history remain obscure. The way they speak to one another---with language that is simultaneously blunt and caring, comfortable and strained---and their transition from violence to tenderness make the depth of their friendship obvious. It is a well-handled scene, in both its words and images, and it gets Oliver back on his feet in a way that's space-efficient (in terms of page length) without feeling rushed or cheap. After understandably falling to pieces over harming and nearly killing a child, Oliver is reminded that no man, hero or otherwise, is infallible; what matters is how we handle our mistakes. As Hal says, "It's your choice. If you let it, it will destroy you."
    This message is an old one, but still appropriate and true. Same goes for Oliver's speech at the end of the issue to Officer Egan, one of the cops involved in the accident with the paintballer. By the story's close, Egan is in a hospital bed after encountering another underage criminal, who this time had a real gun and used it. The policeman requests that Oliver visit him, and it is the first time in Green Arrow #20 that the two characters come together, even though the catalyst for each of their individual narratives is the same. Prior to the hospital, Egan's story in this issue is more or less separate from Oliver's, and in some ways the inverse. Where Oliver tried to run from his shame and let it ruin him, Egan deals with his own shaken confidence by diving right back into his job. And instead of ending up with a renewed sense of righteousness as Oliver does, Egan gets himself shot, presumably bringing his continued competency as a police officer even further into question than it was in the issue's opening pages. It is as sad a story as Oliver's is hopeful, and creates an interesting mood for their scene together. Oliver delivers a passionate pseudo-rant about the difference between "law" and "justice" and why the world needs men like him. It's almost a thesis statement for the character and the title, perhaps laid on a bit too thick in some of the specific examples and the generally overbearing tone. But the person to whom these words are spoken and the setting that surrounds him are so still and peaceful and tragic that Oliver's big, victorious finish is dampened, and it helps to bring what could've have been an over-the-top moment back down to Earth. Which is, of course, what the whole of Grell's run on Green Arrow did to the character and the superhero comicbook in general.
     But I'm not here to discuss the entire run. I doubt if I could find the space. This is about a single, excellent installment, the tale of two men reacting to a horrible accident in very different ways and ending up in very different places. And also the tale of an old and meaningful friendship saving a tortured soul from itself. And also, remarkably, an explanation of vigilantism and superheroism in the big picture, and why one man does what he feels is necessary in the battle against evil.

Green Arrow #20 was published by DC comics and is dated July 1989.

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